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Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

The Faculty Senate hosted a virtual town hall on Wednesday to discuss the University’s plans to safely bring students back to campus in spring 2021, including vaccine distribution and socially distanced on-campus life.

The virtual town hall, titled “From Campus Access to Testing and Vaccination: What to Expect for Penn’s COVID-era Spring Semester,” covered a variety of topics, including mandatory daily symptom checks, twice weekly testing for students living on and off campus, and eventual free vaccine distribution for the Penn community.

The COVID-19 vaccine

The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center are expected to begin receiving weekly supplies of Pfizer vaccines on Dec. 16. These first doses are for health care workers. Professor of Medicine Harvey Rubin said that eventually vaccines will be provided free of charge to faculty, staff, and students.

“As a physician, I think everybody should take a vaccine, but the University is not taking any stance,” Rubin said. “You will be allowed to return to campus if you’re not vaccinated.”

The two major developers of COVID-19 vaccines are pharmaceutical company Pfizer and biotechnology company Moderna. Both vaccines require two doses to be considered immune from the disease. The second dose should be taken 21 days after the first, Rubin said, adding that a person receiving the vaccine should get both doses from the same company because the products are not interchangeable.

Those receiving the vaccine are considered immune one to two weeks after the second dose of the vaccine, Rubin said, noting that enough data suggests that people receiving the vaccine could be partially protected from COVID-19 after the first dose. Immunity from COVID-19 after receiving both vaccine doses is expected to last about one year.

The Penn community should continue to wear masks and socially distance themselves even after receiving the vaccine, Rubin said.

“We don’t know yet if the vaccine actually prevents the virus from taking up residency in your nasal pharynx,” he said. “You could be protected from the [virus] but not protected [from] giving the [virus] to somebody else.”

Campus access

The University will continue using PennOpen Pass to grant access to campus buildings, including libraries. The app will allow students and faculty to record their symptoms to ensure they are feeling well enough to interact with others, Associate Provost and Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé said. Dubé added that PennOpen Pass also allows the University to gather and track data about COVID-19 symptoms.

Physical changes have been made to Penn’s campus to ensure students and faculty can socially distance themselves in classrooms and on-campus spaces. However, the majority of classes are expected to be held online, according to an email sent to the Penn community on Oct. 30.

A percentage of on-campus housing has been set aside for students to quarantine in isolation, Dubé said.

Professor of Nursing and Executive Director of the Center for Public Health Initiatives Jennifer Pinto-Martin said faculty, staff, and postdoctoral students will be expected to complete a daily symptom check on PennOpen Pass, regardless of whether or not they plan to return to campus.

Dubé said Penn has its own contact tracing team that collaborates with the City of Philadelphia to identify patients and close contacts who are members of the Penn community.

On-campus testing

Anyone who is on campus for four or more hours each week, interacts with other Penn community members, teaches on campus, or regularly meets with groups of 10 or more on campus is required to be screened for COVID-19 regularly, Pinto-Martin said.

Dubé said that undergraduate students living on or off campus next semester will be tested for COVID-19 twice a week on a pre-assigned pair of days. Students will be asked to schedule their tests ahead of time and in most cases will no longer be able to drop into testing sites without appointments.

Limited walk-in testing will be available at the High Rise Field and Ace Adams Field for those who are unable to book an appointment or need a test for another purpose.

Graduate students who come to campus will be tested once a week, Dubé said. Exceptions will be made for students who are away from campus for clinical rotations to avoid unnecessary travel to and from campus. Faculty, staff, and postdocs living in the college houses will be required to be tested twice a week and at least two days apart, he added.

Pinto-Martin said anyone who misses their scheduled tests for a particular week will be given a red pass on PennOpen Pass and will not have access to campus buildings.

Faculty members who do not enroll in regular testing by Jan. 18 will have restricted access to campus and can face disciplinary action, which could include termination, Executive Director for Staff and Labor Relations Jeffrey Rowland said. He added that those who enroll in the testing program but fail to attend their weekly appointments will also be subject to the same disciplinary action.

Associate Provost for Finance and Planning Mark Dingfield said Penn is expected to execute and deliver 40,000 COVID-19 tests per week starting in January.

Dingfield said that Penn will add eight other on-campus testing sites next semester in addition to Houston Hall and all nine sites will be operating by Jan. 11. One of these sites will be in Irvine Auditorium and will be exclusively for symptomatic testing. He added that students and faculty can expect to receive their test results within 24 to 48 hours.

For the fall semester, Penn’s COVID-19 positivity rate was lower than the positivity rates of the City of Philadelphia and the 19104 zip code, Dubé said.

“From this, we can infer that the majority of our students made the right decision and were smart about adopting public health guidance,” he said. “This does give us confidence looking ahead to the spring.”